What We Are Not Doing
The vast majority of commercial beekeepers do not rely on honey for their income. Honey is a bonus, an afterthought, or even an annoyance; not worth enough to bother with. Instead, they rely on pollination contracts to put food on their table. Monoculture crop growers all over the nation pay these large scale beekeepers to move their hives from one end of the nation to another, pollinating huge tracts of land along the way.
The cycle goes something like this:
1.) Monoculture Crop Grower A in California hires Beekeeper to put all his hives on a truck and plop them down in his fields or groves. (Check out the second picture at the bottom to see a hundred or so hives in an almond grove.)
2.) The bees pollinate all the flowers they can find, until the monoculture bloom fades and there is nothing left for the bees to eat.
3.) The Beekeeper picks up his hives, puts them on a truck, and hauls them to the next pollination contract with Monoculture Crop Grower B.
4.) Repeat, ad nauseam.
The bees are never in one place for more than a month or two and they suffer for it. Imagine if you ate nothing but almonds for a month. Or cranberries. Or blueberries. Or oranges.
You'd be sick. Your health and your body would suffer from the lack of variety in your diet, and it seems so obvious, yet this is what we ask the vast majority of the world's bees to do on a continual basis.
They suffer for it.
Hive losses for commercial beekeepers average between 30-40% a year. Many large scale beekeepers treat their hives with antibiotics, pesticides, and chemicals preemptively even if they do not require it, because it is easier to treat all of the hives at once. They feed their bees high fructose corn syrup, soy flour, pollen substitutes, and more to make up for the deficiencies of their diet and it is unsustainable. The first picture at the bottom is a flatbed of dead hives I saw driving back from California last week.
It isn't their fault. The system of food production that they have been locked into is not a healthy one, but until there is a viable, large scale alternative system of agriculture, they have no choice but to continue the cycle.
In the city, and at the Brooklyn Grange, things are quite a bit different. On a smaller scale, a new model for local, organic food production is being developed. On our rooftops, a huge variety of fruits and vegetables are grown, providing a healthy, variegated diet not only to our community, but to our bees as well.
The bees in our apiary will have a wide range of food sources year round, and the use of artificial feed will be minimal and for emergencies only. The bees gather and make their own food in the form of pollen, nectar, and honey; all you have to do is leave enough for them to live on. Sometimes it means a smaller harvest to share or sell, but it's a small price to pay for healthier bees.
Just as importantly, the bees in our apiary will be treated for parasites and diseases minimally, if at all. Instead of using drugs, we will breed for hardier, more resistant genetics, and eventually, instead of chemicals, we will use organic integrated pest management techniques such as drone comb cycling and small cell regression.
We'll end up with bigger, more flavorful vegetables, healthier bees, and proof that we can make food a better way.